Despite the economic and social advances of the post-war era, seen in increased life expectancy, a reduction in the proportion of the world’s population facing hunger and life-threatening deprivation, and increased access to health-care and education, poverty remains a major problem for a significant proportion of the population in most countries in the contemporary world. At the heart of this dilemma is the uneven distribution of the world’s resources. Uneven development is an inherent characteristic of capitalism that stems from the propensity of capital to flow to locations that offer the greatest potential return. The differential use of space by capital in pursuit of profit creates a mosaic of inequality at all geographic scales from global to local. Consequently, at any one time certain countries, regions, cities and localities will be in the throes of decline as a result of the retreat of capital investment, while others will be experiencing the impact of capital inflows.
Applied human geographers have focused particular attention on the conditions of poverty and deprivation experienced by those people and places at the disadvantaged end of the quality of life spectrum. This chapter reviews the major dimensions of applied research into the geography of poverty and deprivation. The discussion first identifies the nature of poverty and deprivation before considering the question of its measurement. The extent and incidence of poverty is then examined with reference to research undertaken at a variety of scales from the global to local level in a variety of settings throughout the world. In the final section, we examine the value of an applied geographical perspective for the identification and amelioration of the multiple problems of poverty and deprivation.
Poverty implies deprivation or human needs that are not met. It is generally understood to arise from a lack of income or assets, which means that people are unable to meet basic physical needs such as an adequate diet and decent housing. The poor are, in many instances, also unable to attain health-care when sick or injured and, outside the welfare states of the North, have no means of subsistence when unemployed, ill, disabled or too old to work. Other ‘higher-order’ needs that many would incorporate in any definition of poverty include self-esteem and access to civil and political rights (Townsend 1993).
The causes of poverty are complex. In the countries of the developing world, many problems are associated with economic stagnation and/or debt crisis, and with the difficulties of structural adjustment. In most of the ‘transition countries’ of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, problems of poverty are linked to the collapse of communism, although in many countries social progress had already slowed in the years prior to these changes. In several of the wealthiest countries, the increase in poverty during the 1980s was associated less with economic stagnation and more with changes in the labour market, including a growth in long-term unemployment. Other contributing factors were related to political strategies that reduced